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Prairie Power: Anthony Kiendl on Decentering Canada’s Art Scene

Anthony Kiendl has a knack for creating exciting exhibitions in places that might be presumed unlikely. As director of visual arts at the Banff Centre from 2002 to 2006, he brought international art talents to the Canadian Rockies. And as executive and artistic director of Plug In ICA in Winnipeg, where he has been since 2006, he curated a major exhibition of local artists that toured to Paris. Now, as the newly announced CEO of Regina’s MacKenzie Art Gallery, due to start in May 2014 after starting an MFA in New York, Kiendl is looking to break even more ground for the prairie art scene. Here, he talks about Regina’s creative advantages, Saskatchewan’s art-PR problems, and how to make supposedly out-there locales outstanding.

Leah Sandals: Congratulations on the new job. What plans do you have for the MacKenzie?

Anthony Kiendl: I think there’s a lot of great and unique opportunities and potential there, particularly its unique location within the Wascana Centre. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with Regina, but the Wascana Centre is a large park—larger than Central Park in Manhattan—and the gallery is located to one edge of it, so it has a very unique opportunity for outdoor public artwork and sculpture. That’s something I’m very interested in expanding upon at the Mackenzie.

It also has really incredible facilities: numerous galleries, more than 20,000 square feet of exhibition space, and great preparation and conservation areas, so the ability to do really expansive, internationally significant exhibitions is appealing to me.

It also has a great history of programming and being a leader, particularly in aboriginal and contemporary aboriginal art. It did the first Canadian group exhibition of contemporary aboriginal art in the 1980s.

It also has a historical connection with the University of Regina—it was historically part of the university—so I think in terms of education and post-secondary research and education there’s huge potential there for publishing and training.

LS: You have also worked in Alberta and Manitoba. What do you think is most misunderstood about the prairie art scene?

AK: I don’t really feel it’s misunderstood. I mean, it’s been quite prolific.

If you look at the painting faculty at Concordia University in Montreal, they are mostly from Saskatchewan and Manitoba. There has been a lot of cross-pollination. These places on the prairies are still relatively affordable, and there’s connections through the Internet and travel to whatever is happening elsewhere.

I guess the lack of a commercial gallery scene can actually be a positive thing…. There is a kind of freedom and opportunity on the prairies. But then again, people find their own ways of working and places to work wherever they are.

LS: Winnipeg, which you are leaving, is regarded in Canada as a strong contemporary art centre. Regina, less so. What are your thoughts on the upcoming move as a result?

AK: I think those perceptions are a function of communications and economies. Winnipeg is perhaps known for the Royal Art Lodge, but if you dig into that, half of them are from Saskatchewan originally. Winnipeg gets publicized a certain way.

There are a lot of interesting artists in Saskatchewan that perhaps are not as well received or well known outside of the province. Edward Poitras would be one. His former teacher Sarain Stump would be another. Then there’s Emma Lake and the Regina Five. Roy Kiyooka also spent time in Saskatchewan.

I think Emma Lake is just one example of the idea that you can create this centre of energy and excitement internationally wherever one is. Winnipeg has been really good at packaging that and communicating that, and it’s true and well deserved, but I think, like many things, it’s a function of communications and economics that creates these ideas.

LS: In the international press, even cities like Vancouver and Montreal can be described as small, remote towns. And in the Canadian context, some prairie sites are regarded that way. What is the secret of making a gallery program significant in supposedly remote spaces?

AK: Well, I think you just have huge potential, because one can do whatever one wants. And you can think freely and creatively.

I’ll give you two examples: after Edward Poitras did the Venice Biennale in 1995, he went back to Regina and did a series of exhibition projects on his reserve—just for the reserve, that were not advertised or documented. So that is one example of things happening there that people really just don’t know about elsewhere.

And young artists like Tyler Brett—he moved to Bruno, bought a storefront with artist Serena McCarroll and they ran a gallery for a few years in a town with the population of 500. So that’s another kind of example. Something like that also continued on as the Bruno Arts Bank with Brett and Kerri Reid for a few years.

Maybe from the Eurocentric or American point of view, these are remote places. But then again, what is Kassel, Germany, home to Documenta? It’s this tiny, bland, former munitions factory town.

So much theory has been written about being decentred and about the end of art capitals. There are so many biennales in places much, much smaller and more remote than Regina. I think it comes back to funding. Some of these places abroad have really put in millions and millions of dollars into creating investments and interest internationally. Unfortunately, in Canada, we haven’t really done that.

LS: Any other thoughts on the move?

AK: I actually started my art career in Saskatchewan. I started at AKA Gallery and then I was at the Dunlop Gallery for four-and-a-half years before I went to Banff. So it’s kind of a return.

That earlier time in the province was really productive for me. Being a young person and going somewhere where you could be in charge of things and take chances was a really exceptional experience.

I’m older now, but I have had very positive experiences there.

In the late 1990s at the Dunlop, I worked with Bruce Grenville at the Vancouver Art Gallery to commission the Most Wanted and Most Unwanted Canadian Painting from Komar and Melamid. We hired Ipsos Reid and they did a survey of what people wanted to see in art, and the artists went with that.

Where else could I have done that, or would it have worked so well? Regina was at the time Canada’s “least desirable” city to live in and Vancouver was Canada’s “most desirable,” according to a poll. I have always been more interested in what is going on outside the centre, and interested in the underdog. I see a lot of possibilities in Saskatchewan.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

This article was corrected on September 9, 2013. The original copy erroneously suggested that Kiendl would complete his MFA in the coming year and also listed the MacKenzie has having been part of the University of Saskatchewan. The gallery originally opened as part of the University of Saskatchewan’s Regina campus, which is now the University of Regina.

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